Participatory Varietal Selection in India: research and process in the state of Karnataka

Promoting change through participatory activities is one of the key goals of CROPS4HD. For this, we conduct a concrete approach for the PUSH implementing aspect of the project: the Participatory Varietal Selection (PVS). In India, the first training supervised by expert from FiBL, and jointly organized by FiBL, SWISSAID and Sahaja Samrudha, took place in Mysore, Karnataka on amaranth crop in June 2022. The objective was to show the contribution that such a research and development approach can have on livelihood and nutrition as the selection is made by the farmers and their demand were taken into consideration. This training, which was well received, emphasised through direct practical application and active participation of the actors present, that PVS is essential in rainfed environments and diverse socioeconomic groups that use vegetable growing for their livelihood.

This training gathered around 65 participants between scientists, farmers, consumers along with a team of technical experts and the production team. It took place at a farm in the Mysuru district that was adorned with a diversity of about 30 different varieties of amaranth crop collected from 5 different states (Odisha, West Bengal, Andrah Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and districts of Karnataka). This field has been chosen for the training because it provides a concrete visual picture of different hues of amaranth. The experimental plot had 30 varieties with three replications of each variety and each variety separated by foxtail millet. Each block contained a plot with each studied variety that measured about 50 sq. feet and with a total of 90 blocks. As such, this field offered a wide choice to the participants.

This Varietal Selection of different varieties of amaranth was organized with specific objectives in mind:

  • To select the best traditional varieties of amaranth that are adaptable to local climate conditions, tolerant to pests & diseases, best types that the community wants to eat
  • To promote economically viable and climate-friendly traditional diversity and orient farmers towards its conservation
  • To empower rural communities that build upon Indigenous traditional knowledge, skills, and practices
  • To enhance the production base of traditional varieties of amaranth and increase its availability in the market

As an introduction, a quick reminder on all advantages of amaranth defined as a powerhouse of nutrition has been presented by Dr. Aravinda Kumar from College of Horticulture Mysuru. After that, the expert from FiBL took the lead of the rest of the training. He narrated the objective of the Participatory Varietal trial is to identify the varieties that most men and women farmers prefer. In that sense, the farmers’ preference, including their need from the crop and varietal choice, and constraints to adoption are taken into consideration. At the end, this varietal preference is a carefully assessed among consumption and production characteristics.

The participation of farmers in the varietal selection is a real value-add and is therefore strongly emphasized because of the improvement it enables in the selection of suitable varieties as the farmers themselves screen the new varieties on their farms under their levels of management and they understand the quality or other requirements. Therefore, the first step of this training was an exercise of “listing out preference.” All participants got involved and after the first listing of the different traits preferred by men and the ones preferred by women, a common group discussion enable the categorisation of the list into the following criteria: soft/tender stem, free from pest and disease, more and bigger leaves, high yield, long shelf life and multi-cut. After listing those most preferred traits, the participants were taken to the field to tag the variety of their preferences by groups (only men, only women and mix group). By participating in this process, the farmers were able to understand the importance of cultivar testing and PVS.

At the end of this activity, 10 specifics cultivar stood out of all highlighting their plant’s traits. It is interesting to note that out of this list of cultivars, more than half were specially defined as attractive due to their characteristics by all compared to the rest of the cultivars which were rejected by some participants. This shows that the expectations of characteristics can overlap as well as appear to be in contradiction for some farmers. A participatory approach thus allows everyone’s expectations and research to be taken into consideration. As a result of this fieldwork, the following characteristics are most often found: tenderness of the leaves, tolerance level to pests and diseases, suitable for leaf and stem purpose[1].

To end the day on a high note and to raise interest in amaranth in a different way, a gastronomic buffet of dishes derived from amaranth was prepared by the participants themselves. Different dishes were prepared from these varieties, such as soups, salads, rotis, green vegetable stir-fries, curries, snacks, etc. The women shared the ancient knowledge of cooking the tender leaves and stems and added them to different dishes.

Finally, the Director of Sahaja Samrudha closed the day by emphasising that amaranth is a promising under-utilised food crop because it can grow in a wide range of weather conditions. The development of this crop, from field cultivation to production and consumption by rural households, will significantly address the health consequences. Moreover, it is economically viable and has a strong inherent market potential that needs to be fully exploited. As such, efforts will be made to bring these varieties to our markets by forming marketing collectives in the region.

[1] This is not an exhaustive list and is only valid for these participants. It should in no way be extrapolated as typical characteristics for the amaranth.